Little-known 90-year-old wins $100,000 poetry award
With most of her work out of print until last year, 90-year-old American poet Eleanor Ross Taylor probably thought her days of winning literary prizes were over. Not so: Taylor has just been announced as the winner of the American Poetry Foundation’s $100,000 (£65,000) Ruth Lilly award for a poet “whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition”.
Born in 1920 in North Carolina, Taylor has published six collections of poetry, from her debut in 1960, Wilderness of Ladies, to last year’s Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, and has received awards including the Shelley memorial prize, the Library of Virginia’s literary award for poetry and a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Announcing her win, Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman praised her poems’ “sober and clear-eyed serenity” and authority, and her strong reserve.
“We live in a time when poetic styles seem to become more antic and frantic by the day, and Taylor’s voice has been muted from the start. Muted, not quiet,” he said. “You can’t read these poems without feeling the pent-up energy in them, the focused, even frustrated compression, and then the occasional clear lyric fury. And yet you can’t read them without feeling, as well, a bracing sense of spiritual largesse and some great inner liberty.”
Poetry will publish 10 of Taylor’s poems in its May issue; Wiman’s introduction to the selection admits that her name will be “unfamiliar to a number of our readers, the work to even more”. “Until the excellent selected poems, Captive Voices, was published by LSU Press last year, virtually all of Taylor’s work was out of print,” he writes. “Her slow production (six books in 50 years), dislike of poetry readings (‘It seems to me that it’s all for the person and not the poetry’), and unfashionable fidelity to narrative and clarity haven’t helped matters. And yet, as is so often the case, what’s been bad for the career has been good for the poems. With their intricately odd designs and careful, off-kilter music, their vital characters and volatile silences, the poems have a hard-won, homemade fatedness to them. You can feel their future.”
The Ruth Lilly poetry prize – named for the Poetry Foundation’s late benefactor Ruth Lilly, who died aged 94 in December – is given annually to a living US poet; past recipients include Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, John Ashbery and Lucille Clifton.